Anthropology ~ In Search of a Broader Context

Throughout her lifetime, my mom was a naturalist. She had a way about her with the other-than-human world, and was never more content than when she was in the moose and bear country of Montana. She had been moving rocks, one day, in a portion of the creek that ran through her property, and felt a whisper of breath on the back of her neck. Very slowly she turned her head and found herself literally nose to nose with a curious cow moose. This beautiful creature stayed right there for a while, taking in the scent and sight of what had to have been an odd creature for her, and exhaling her own breath into my mom’s hair. Then she ambled off into the woods.cow moose

The experience stayed with my mom for the rest of her life. She told me it had changed her, that the more she reflected on it, the deeper her understanding of herself in relationship to everything around her.

Against that backdrop I welcomed a book recommended to me by a friend. It was the title that caught my attention: How Forests Think ~ Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. (Eduardo Kohn) Living in the woods as I do, certainly I would like to know how a forest thinks, particularly the one I inhabit. What an intriguing idea! What I did not know when I ordered the book, is that it would be such an academic undertaking just to read it. That said, I continue to be enchanted.

Not surprisingly, I am doing a fair amount of forehead slapping; of course anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. Anthropo ~ human. Humans (with an occasional primate or two thrown in) are the center of attention. Drawing on the social and biological sciences, as well as other disciplines, anthropology is all about human to human relationships, and solutions to human problems.

The question that pops immediately to mind: is it even possible to understand human interrelationships and to discover solutions to human problems without placing them in the context of the non-human world? I don’t think so. More than 2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher/theologian Xenophanes wrote “Men always makes gods in their own image,” and, to bolster his point, “if horses had gods, they would look like horses.” If it can be argued (and it is argued) that the very God who called humans out, separated us and placed us above all other life forms, “chose us” is the God who is made in the human image, then it shouldn’t surprise us that the discipline of anthropology is concerned almost exclusively with human to human relationship. man skull

It follows that, with humans as the center of study, anything else that humans might explore ~ a forest, for example ~ will be investigated through a human lens, ie from a human perspective. What is a forest in relation to me? What is a black bear in relation to me? What is a predator big cat in relation to me? Or an elephant, or a baboon? A wolf? A songbird? It’s all about me.

In fact, in the very first pages of his work, Eduardo Kohn lays out a significant problem; another “slap your forehead opportunity”. He writes of the circular nature of anthropological discovery, writing about the confinement of a discipline that “seeks to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans.” How much (really) will you learn about yourself by looking into a mirror?mirror

Kohn is after a broader exploration, one in which humans study and are studied ~ not just in relation to one another ~ but in relation to the non-human world. His question is simple. How might this broader context of study change ~ in a similar way to my mom being changed by her encounter with a cow moose ~ what it might mean to be human?

In the March/April 2014 issue of Orion magazine, Robert Sullivan, in his article Forest Farewell: An Ode to an Iconic Tree, writes of a visit to a grove of hemlock that is slowly dying because of the infestation of a certain sap-sucking bug. As he and a small group walk into the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts, where the temperature immediately drops a good ten degrees, one woman says, “You can hear it.” Sullivan thinks she is talking about the quiet. In the quiet he hears what he thinks is the sound of a stream of cold rushing water. It isn’t. What he is hearing are thousands of dead hemlock needles falling to the ground in a steady rain. He writes, “I memorize it, lock it in, and carry it home. A forest is leaving, going forever. When I listen to the hemlock’s sad rain, play it over in my head, I feel thicker, like a hemlock, more worn.

Robert Sullivan is changed by this experience, and the measure of this change can only be understood placed in the context of the dying hemlock forest.

I like to think of experiences such as his, and such as my mom’s, as an anthropological sea change. It fits the concept of Eduardo Kohn’s broader anthropological exploration, one which redefines in some measure what it means to be human.

Eco-spiritual Dimensions of Green Burial ~ Sense of Place Part V

In my growing up years, we didn’t talk about carbon footprints, diminishing rain forests, loss of wildlife habitat, and the destruction of boreal forests. We certainly didn’t talk about dying and death, nor our cultural propensity to send off loved ones in mahogany coffins placed snugly into plastic or concrete vaults. We didn’t talk about the behind-the-scenes violence done to bodies by physical manipulation and chemicals, all for the sake of making them look good.coffin

Cremation was rare, and there was no thought given to the toxicity of the chemicals released into the atmosphere. The more money we spent, the greater show of our love; our efforts were – and to a great extent in the West, still are – designed to hide the reality of both the dying process and the outcome. Hospice care didn’t exist in the U.S. until the mid-1970′s. The job of the medical profession was and continues to be to keep a patient alive no matter the cost.

Today I would like to introduce you to Lee Webster, the director of the non-profit New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy. Lee is a hospice volunteer and a passionate advocate for home funerals and green burials. From the time I was first introduced – I can only describe it as a lightening bolt of clarity – I knew that what she offers is the obvious next step for all of us who are committed to walking a pathway of intention to minimize our ecological footprint and at the same time, create and enrich habitat.cremation

Hers is a rich and comprehensive compendium, drawing together the threads of ecology, family and community, human dignity, ritual, practicality, history, and common sense. Lee has – unwittingly or not – sent me spinning into the eco-spiritual dimensions of home funerals and green burial. My thoughts are mostly taking the form of “I wonder”.

Ecological healing calls to me. As I think on being “buried green”, I wonder, if we humans were to acknowledge our appropriate place within the earth community, as part of, participating in, and integral to it – and therefore of no more and no less ecological value than any other form – would we behave cooperatively and collaboratively with creation? Might we grow a vision of healing that is antithetical to our current sense of human primacy and entitlement? What if we were to share our green plans with our children and grandchildren, letting them know that “buried green” is becoming the new normal? Might we put new thoughts and behavioral patterns into more than a few hearts and vocations?

Ritual, community, friends and family call to me. More than simply wondering how we have arrived at the predominate funeral home/church directives, telling us how things must be done, I wonder about the honoring of our dead in ways that are more organic to the lives they have led. We are not obliged to hand over the bodies of our loved ones to funeral homes; the families are in charge! It’s not a common understanding.

Lee shared with me what has become a powerful metaphor. We were in a restaurant and had just ordered from the menu. She shared with me a comment from her mentor Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council. “If you were to go to a restaurant, you’d be given a menu, from which you would order your preference. It wouldn’t occur to you to order something that’s not on the menu. It’s the same thing when you arrive at a Funeral Home. You are given a menu, from which you make decisions. It doesn’t occur to you to order something else, because you don’t know what’s not on the menu.” I wonder what we would choose if we knew there existed something other. I wonder what we would choose if we understood that the family of the deceased is the ultimate authority.

I wonder how a commitment to dying at home and buried “green” might serve as the ultimate embrace of one’s sense of place. My husband Jim and I have often had this conversation: “I would like you to dig a big hole (not easy in the Granite State), drop me in it, and plant a tree over me.”green-250x88

We’re both a little short on the details, but we know the commitment is right. If I knew that I would be buried (according to the legal criteria) on the property I have shared with all kinds of life forms, would I treat this earth portion (and by extension, every part of the planet) differently? Would I love it and honor it? Would I be thrilled beyond measure to imagine the deer, raccoons, moose, mice, daddy long legs, bear, and squirrels walking over me? To imagine the earthworms and billions of microbes within me? I know I would.

And, as I age, I wonder if I would welcome my homecoming? I can only say I hope I would. I hope that as age continues to come my way, as the possibility of illness lurks, that my deepening sense of place within the earth community will offset not only my fear of dying, but also the fears of my family, my community, and my medical support.

We will all die. My hope is that I do so according to what I say I believe. Ritual is important, and I will want that. But I want its sacramental significance to correspond to the particulars of who I was in my lifetime. And I know another thing. If I had to choose between some ethereal heavenly sense of homecoming and a literal earthly homecoming, I would choose to come home to the latter.

 

From Beavers to Deep Ecology

I can’t imagine a better real life drama of the battle between those who dismiss beavers as good-for-nothing rats with wide tails and those who understand the ecological benefits and offer hospitality and protection to them, than the one that lives right in my neighborhood. It’s a battle every bit as enthralling as some of the skirmishes between the Hatfields and McCoys (I know what I am talking about, in that my Great-Grand-Uncle was Devil Anse Hatfield himself.) beaver1-150x150

The land to which my husband and I belong abuts a wetland area that is home to geese, otters, turtles, ducks, bear and moose (in the early spring) and . . . beavers. The beavers have built a lodge on which they improve every year, and always build a dam which keeps the wetlands water-filled in the summers – even the dry ones – and teeming with birds, insects, and a wide diversity of frogs. Their wetland chorus extends from summer’s early dawn far into the night, as the peepers finally exhaust themselves with their love competing songs.

Here’s the problem. Those of us on our side of the wetlands love the beavers, and wait in great anticipation for their appearance in the spring. The man whose land abuts the other side of the wetlands is a developer and continues his bid (thus far denied) to fill the wetlands so that he can build; he hates the beavers, (he used to shoot them until he was arrested) and because the dam itself stretches between his property and that of our neighbors to the east, he claims it’s his to destroy, which he does, periodically, sneaking out at night to tear it apart.

In the morning, my wonderful neighbors rebuild it.dam

Once the men both arrived at the same time, and challenged each other with axes! It took the audacity of a brave, clearly indestructible young woman to leap into the breach and stop the fight.

Here’s the good news. According to a recent New York Times article, beavers are garnering new respect. Referring to them as eco-system engineers, Manuel Valdes writes; “They raise the water table alongside a stream, aiding the growth of trees and plants that stabilize the banks and prevent erosion. They improve fish and wildlife habitat and promote new, rich soil”.

As their dams halt the flow of water away from an area, they create pools of water – pools which cool the water at greater depths and protect species of fish from rising temperatures. Michael M. Pollack, a fish biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, points to these beaver-enhanced pools as “outstanding rearing habitat for juvenile coho salmon.”

There is a bigger picture here; isn’t there always? The story of the awakening respect for the beavers among us is a story that can be told not only across species of all kinds, but across the disciplines human endeavor as well. Everything is connected.

Fritjof Capra, in The Systems View of Life, reminds us that what we call the material world is in fact a network of patterns, inseparable patterns of relationships. This isn’t new news. Nor was it new news when Aldo Leopold offered it, or Henry David Thoreau , or John Muir, who said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Capra, in the introduction to his new book writes, “Deep Ecology does not separate humans – or anything else – from the natural environment. It sees the world as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Ultimately,” he says, “deep ecological awareness is spiritual awareness – spiritual in its deepest essence.capra

So . . . this post (as so many) begins in the realm of beavers, but it could have begun anywhere – with wolves, insects, trees, herbs; it would still and always move into Capra’s (and others) understanding of deep ecology and its spiritual essence.

Re-imagining the Lowly Spider

It saddens and sometimes angers me that spiders generate such fear and sense of repulsion. And so it’s heartening to know that there are people who love spiders, who are fascinated by them.

I wouldn’t claim to be particularly comfortable around spiders, but I wish them no harm. In fact, when I know my husband is gearing up to clean our bathroom (the porcelain duty usually falls to him) I sneak in first and remove all the cellar spiders, dispersing them to – yes – the cellar, where they may not be quite as warm, but where they certainly will be safer. I may not love spiders but I have a history with them, and they fascinate me.

It is 1976, and I am upstairs in my self-built Vermont cabin. I am typing (on a typewriter!) at my desk, while wispy filaments, like eyelashes, float through the air in front of my face and around my head. Some of them waft through the rays of the winter sun, and they glisten. In Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin describes it this way: “These, glittering in the sunshine, might be compared to diverging rays of light; they were not, however, straight, but in undulations like films of silk blown by the wind.” I know what has happened; the female spider’s egg sac has split, and the offspring are in dispersal status. I have protected sac and spider from my three cats who are young and curious, and now comes the startling reality that I can no longer protect them. Nor can I imagine how these tiny, hardly visible creatures can possibly survive.

Fast forward fifteen years. It is Easter Sunday, and I leave my house in darkness for my first church service of the day. Although I am running late, when I round the corner of my house I stop for a moment in awe as the sun unfolds its rays and races down the mountain above me. Coincidentally, at the periphery of my vision, I catch the slightest of movements in the garden. I don’t think much about it, as it has hardly registered. Then the sun hits the tops of the bushes, and I see what has caught my attention – literally, the blink of an eye. A small male goldfinch is suspended upside down, not moving a feather; it’s not possible, but there he is. He blinks again. I lay my vestments on the sidewalk and creep into the garden. Now the sun penetrates and lights up the web of an orb spider (and the hungry spider herself), in the center of which is suspended one very frightened bird. I gently release the finch, and make a discovery for the first time: the spokes of the web are not sticky; the rest is. Home again, I do a little research, and learn what I imagine most people already know. It’s how a spider travels, on the non-stick filaments of her web.

It is now 2009, and I am walking with my dog Missy, very first tracks on a foot of fresh snow. Untouched, so that thirty yards in front of us, the dark spot in the middle of the snow covered dirt road looks out of place. Not only that, it is moving, moving fast, in fact. As we approach, I see that it’s a small spider. I wonder how s/he got there; I also wonder where s/he is headed because there is nothing but snow in front of her. I opt for an intervention. I pick her up with my mittened hand, and the spider finds a safe spot between my thumb and fingers, and seems content enough to stay there as we make our way home. I put her among my begonias, and figure she can have a warm enough winter.

coming back to life

A year and a half ago, Jim and I make ready for a major remodel of our New Hampshire home. The preparation seems endless, and it is not surprising to him that I am making it even more difficult. Outside the guest room window is a mama spider, and beside her is her egg sac. I know that ladders will soon be climbing that wall, and so, in a burst of compassion, I attempt to remove both spider and sac. But they drop to the ground. I peer down and can see the sac, but not the spider. Suddenly the sac begins to move, and I realize the mama spider is dragging the egg sac across the lawn. I am spell bound. It takes her a long time, but she is obviously determined. I see the egg sac make its way up the sturdy stalk of a comfrey plant, and then it disappears. Curious, I follow the trail and peer under the highest leaf on the plant. There is the sac, and the mama is affixing it well to the underside of the comfrey. Truly, I am dumbfounded, and wrestle with a sense of guilt for quite a few days.

And at last, this summer, after a day of pouring rain, I step outside and find a large spider – an uncomfortably large spider, dead on the deck floor, her eight legs wrapped around her egg sac. I gently lay spider and sac on an index card and add it to my box of “treasures”.

I am both saddened and fascinated by my intimate engagement with spiders – in particular, the last two close encounters. What compels a spider to drag her offspring fifty yards across the grass? What compels a dying spider to wrap her arms around her egg sac? These two images haunt me, and I am not sure why. It has something to do, I think, with where I began this musing: the bad rap that spiders suffer in the minds and at the hands (and vacuum cleaners) of humans. At first blush, spiders are kind of ugly and creepy. We’re afraid, repulsed, and therefore we hate them. We teach our children to say “I hate spiders.” We teach our children to crush them.

Yet spiders are beautiful, and they are fascinating. Close encounters such as these make me want to know more, and so I begin to explore the role of spiders in the ecosystems of earth. I am not surprised to learn that they prey and are preyed upon. As my husband Jim too often remarks, “everybody is somebody else’s lunch.”

This is what I already knew: spiders are good gardening partners, as they feast on other destructive insect populations. And they don’t eat cabbage leaves, or squash blossoms.

What I now know that I didn’t, is that spiders, because of the way the newly hatched move on silken tendrils at the whim of the currents of wind, they are often the first to catalyze the development of ecosystems where before now, there have been none.

The naturalist and teacher Chris Buddle argues this: spiders and their webs represent little pockets of concentrated nutrients in landscapes that are void of much other life.  He reminds us, for example, that after the eruption of Mount St. Helens, spiders were the first to repopulate, and therefore the first to catalyze the recovery of the ecosystems of the Cascades.

I am inordinately pleased by this idea. It reminds me of what I already know; all created forms – animate and inanimate – have role and function on this magnificent planet. It is to our earth, and therefore human, peril that we take so lightly the 200 or so per day extinction of earth’s creatures.

 

Sense of Place ~ Today my Home Floats

It is two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, the spring semester of 1971. I am sitting in the back row of a basement classroom. The room is hot and airless; my black beans and rice squat heavily in my stomach; it’s the drowsing hour. We are beginning part two of a three hour senior level seminar whose focus is Thomas Aquinas. I am trying to appreciate Thomas Aquinas despite what is for me, the near incomprehensibility of his written word. Aquinas writes in questions, though, quite a lot of them, in fact, and then proceeds to answer them. I like that. It’s good pedagogy, I am thinking, but not good enough, apparently, to keep me awake; I’ve got the slam nods.

It’s the conversation about angels (how many of them?) dancing on the head of a pin which lifts me from my post-prandial stupor, and for the few frantic moments required to reorient myself, I am playing catch-up. As I learn that of the one hundred eighty nine questions Aquinas raises, angels dancing on the head of a pin isn’t one of them, I am inexplicably relieved. That question comes several centuries later, and lives among the satirical writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth century philosophers who are taking pot shots at Aquinas’ verbosity.

I close my eyes, rest my elbow on the desk, my chin on my elbow, and nod off once again.

Now that I have formally retired from congregational life, I can be found celebrating the ten o’clock hour in my kayak at the north end of Enfield, New Hampshire’s Grafton Pond. Today I am remembering the early morning adventures my late mother and I shared. My mom had a sixth sense about keyhole openings which, if you hadn’t eaten that second piece of toast for breakfast, you could slink through, clearing the sunken and rotted trees by mere centimeters. But on the other side of these obscure openings lay the marshlands, nearly primeval in appearance. Marsh reeds woven in arbitrary patterns over the water’s surface, stumps emerging from the shallow waters, wild iris in clumps welcoming the swallowtails. Today dragon and damsel flies alight on my hands, my arms, my knees, and stay to visit. The hum of bees is evident, and from time to time I swat at a mosquito which dares to infiltrate the magic. (Try as I might, I’ve not been able to include the mosquitoes in the mystery and magic of this place!) All of this unfolds against the backdrop of the songs of the shy thrushes, hidden deep in the woods which border the marshes. A parent loon is teaching her babies to dive in the shallow waters, and I am waiting with confidence (a failed confidence, as it turns out) for the cow moose to appear. I know she is there, because my friend Candis met her right here just a few days ago.

The frogs have formed an orchestra along the banks, and from time to time one and then another leap into the water. The lily pads have sent up their flowers, yellow and white buds on vertical stalks. Most of them have yet to open, and as I glide through their midst, I happen to glance down, my face only inches from the buds. Some miniscule movement catches my attention, and I stop my lazy drift with the end of my paddle against a rock. I count more than two dozen tiny creatures of all different sorts, jockeying for a tenuous hold. This single bud is teeming with life, and once again, I am stunned and enchanted by how little I know about so many things.

Of my many mentors (most of them don’t know they serve in that capacity) Edward O. Wilson, whom I’ve never met and can’t imagine that I will, has taught me that in a pinch of garden soil, about a gram in weight, live millions of bacteria, representing several thousand species. In fact, that gram of garden soil might contain around a million fungi alone. Add the nematodes, the roundworms, algae, and protozoa, life forms not visible to the naked eye, not to mention the visible – earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and plants.

Who needs angels? And who needs angels dancing on the head of a pin?

As I drift slowly out of the marshlands and rejoin the waters of the pond itself, I am hearing familiar voices in my head. They are the voices of the people of churches, who, in their arrogance and righteousness, perhaps even in their vague and nameless fear that they are missing out on something, are proclaiming ever so loudly and with indefatigable authority – to those of us who dare suggest that the ponds and the woods and the meadows offer sacred encounters we’ve never experienced in churches – “You’re not in church. The woods and the lakes aren’t church. Church requires community.”

I am thinking about more than a couple dozen insects (and these are just the visible ones) on a single lily bud, thinking about the trees, the frogs, the parent loon with her babies, the moose who’s the no-show today, the fish under my kayak, the dragon and damsel flies, the grasses and rocks and irises. I am thinking about all of these and am asking a Thomas Aquinas-like question: if this isn’t community, then what is?

I am not of the place in which I was born. I am of a different place. It’s a place that’s getting bigger, meaning I am more at home wherever I go. Not altogether at home, but more today than yesterday. It gives me hope. It gives me peace. It allows me to release a little more of my anxiety about my own sense of place. This is important. The greater my sense of belonging, the greater my connectedness to the biotic community. And the greater my connectedness to the biotic community, the better I understand my role as servant.